In 1980 a gallon of gas cost $1.08, a dozen eggs were priced at 89 cents and, according to Mike McCabe, former head of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a state Senate candidate needed to raise $40,000 to be competitive in an election.
“Now you would have to be prepared to spend seven figures to remain competitive in a race,” McCabe said. “We’ve even seen some state Senate races cost as much as $10 million.”
Campaign finance has left its mark on the recent right-to-work debate, as members of both parties have accused the other of allowing special interest groups to manipulate them in the debate over the law.
Republicans have accused Democrats of supporting labor unions for purely political purposes.
“The organization that donates money [to campaigns], the 800-pound gorilla in the room … is labor unions [giving to Democratic lawmakers],” said state Rep. Dean Knudson, R-Hudson, during floor debate in the Assembly.
Democrats responded that Republicans introduced the bill to serve special interests.
“[Republicans] put the priorities of the Koch Brothers, Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and the Bradley Foundation ahead of every hardworking Wisconsinite,” State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, said in a statement after the right-to-work bill passed the state Senate.
McCabe said both sides’ arguments are accurate.
“There is no question that [business interests] have a friendly majority in the [state] legislature. They have a majority of [Republican] legislators who are easy to please,” McCabe said. “Democrats have long been very much interested in siding with unions.”
One of the most prominent right-to-work advocates is Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s chamber of commerce. In addition to hiring former state Sen. Joe Leibham, R-Sheboygan, to lobby for the legislation, the WMC has been one of the more prominent campaign contributors for Republican lawmakers.
In the 2014 election cycle, the WMC political action committee gave $4,150 in campaign contributions to seven Republican candidates, according to the candidates’ financial reports. The group also spent an estimated $4.8 million on TV ads promoting candidates, according to a report from the Center for Public Integrity.
More notably, the WMC conduit gave $72,295 to Republican state Senate, Assembly and gubernatorial campaigns in the past election cycle, a 53 percent increase over the 2012 elections. According to McCabe, conduits bundle donations together from individuals as a single check and generally operate without limits that could constrain a PAC or individual giving.
McCabe said campaign contributions weigh on a candidate’s mind more today than they would have in the past.
“There is no question that today’s lawmakers are hypersensitive to the flow of money in campaigns,” he said. “There is an unmistakable [voting] pattern that favors those who bankroll their campaigns.”
Labor unions also have cast their lot with financial donations, largely to Democratic campaigns. Unions, both public and private, gave more than $1 million to Democratic campaigns in advance of the fall 2014 elections compared with roughly $90,000 to Republican candidates.
The Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council, whose leaders have been fixtures at rallies against right-to-work, gave $85,560 to campaigns in the fall. This is a substantial increase from the 2012 election cycle when the union gave only $5,274 to candidates.
State Sen. Janet Bewley, D-Ashland, who joined her Democratic colleagues in voting against right-to-work, received 53 percent of the $20,629 she raised in the past election cycle from labor unions. This included $1,000 from the WLDC, the maximum allowed for a state Senate race under state law.
A spokesperson for Bewley said her belief that the bill will have a negative economic impact was a more significant reason in casting her “no” vote than financial support from labor unions.
McCabe said the decline in membership has nonetheless decreased unions’ power to give to candidates, meaning that business interests will have more leverage going forward than in the past.
“If you follow the money, you get a clear picture of why we see the kind of legislation passed that we are now,” McCabe said. “Republicans are way more adventurous and aggressive about passing anti-union legislation than 15 or 20 years ago because they don’t have to worry about opponents that are heavily funded by labor.”
WMC and WLDC didn’t return multiple phone calls seeking comment for this story.